In August, a 4-1 romp at Frank Lampard’s Derby County suggested Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds could take the Championship by storm.
Two months later, Derby impressed by winning by the same scoreline at much-fancied West Brom.
Yet on Saturday it was West Brom’s turn to shine – again with the same 4-1 scoreline – with United mauled in the West Midlands for just the third league defeat of the Bielsa era and heaviest to date. A West Brom side beaten 4-1 by Derby who themselves were trounced 4-1 by Leeds. The 2018-19 Championship in a nutshell – and Whites winger Pablo Hernandez refused to be downcast after United’s Baggies bruising, predicting many more twists and turns in the absence of an obvious frontrunner.
Goals always looked likely in Saturday’s clash with the Whites and Baggies the two highest-scoring teams in the division and West Brom blessed with what Bielsa described as the “best offensive players” in English football’s second tier.
Hernandez himself got in on the act but by the time the Spaniard had headed home in the 92nd minute, West Brom were already on their way to fifth as their powerful attacking prowess yielded four unanswered goals in 23 minutes via Hal Robson-Kanu, Matt Phillips, Harvey Barnes and Dwight Gayle.
Hernandez, though, said Leeds would quickly put their worst result of the season behind them and insisted Saturday’s setback would “change nothing” in terms of United’s mentality or style – or their eventual prospects of achieving promotion.
“Two weeks ago, we knew we were not the best team in the world and now we know we are not the worst team,” reasoned Hernandez.
“Sometimes you have good days, sometimes you have bad days and this was a bad day. This was maybe the worst game in our season but we need to continue with the same style and with the same mentality. This changes nothing in our style or our mind.
“We know that West Brom have good players up front and good attackers. We knew they would wait for our mistakes and of the four goals, two or three came from our mistakes. We need to learn and not repeat the mistakes.
“But this year you can’t see it like two years ago with Newcastle and Brighton, or last year with Wolves. They went to the top with a big gap. Now you win one game and go top and if you lose one game you go third or fourth. Until February or March a lot of teams can fight for the top of the league. It’s a big fight for us.”
Saturday’s fight could and should have been over after half an hour with Robson-Kanu firing just over before Tosin Adarabioyo blasted a volley just wide. Goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell then denied Jay Rodriguez before Barnes slid the ball the wrong side of the post.
United finally threatened when Hernandez fired over but the Baggies onslaught continued and Rodriguez thumped a curling effort against the crossbar on the half hour. With Leeds somehow still level, United finally got going with a drive from Adam Forshaw saved by Sam Johnstone. Mateusz Klich then fired straight at the ‘keeper after a lovely move involving Gjanni Alioski and Barry Douglas.
Leeds also began the second half brightly but after Kemar Roofe went tumbling in the area, West Brom swiftly countered to take the lead as Rodriguez fed Robson-Kanu who fired across Peacock-Farrell.
Barnes then could have doubled the lead only to slice wide but after Klich was robbed of possession, the second goal arrived when Peacock-Farrell let a low 20-yard drive from Philips slip through his hands.
Peacock-Farrell then denied Barnes soon after but he bagged the goal his performance deserved in the 82nd minute when coolly finishing a one-on-one.
Within 60 seconds West Brom had a fourth with substitute Dwight Gayle nonchalantly back-heeling the ball over the line.
The Baggies pressed for a fifth before Leeds finally netted in the second minute of added time through a looping header from Hernandez after a clever pass from Samu Saiz. The goal proved scant consolation as the home side’s attacking flair that Bielsa had predicted came out in force and United’s head coach said he was to blame for the defeat.
“I feel responsible for this loss,” said Bielsa, whose men are now third and three points behind leaders Norwich. “We knew the features of the opponent, that they needed space, and in order to prevent the opponent from counter-attacking it was essential not to lose the ball playing out. If the opposite of what I designed happens, I’m responsible.”
West Brom: Johnstone, Gibbs (Mears 88), Robson-Kanu (Gayle 80), Morrison, Livermore, Phillips (Harper 90), Barnes, Rodriguez, Adarabioyo, Dawson, Hegazi. Unused substitutes: Myhill, Sako, Barry, Hoolahan.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell, Douglas (Harrison 73), Dallas, Cooper, Jansson, Phillips, Klich (Saiz 78), Alioski, Hernandez, Forshaw, Roofe (Roberts 66). Unused substitutes: Blackman, Davis, Shackleton, Baker.
Referee: L Mason.